The Great Smoky Mountains are renowned for their scenic landscapes, abundant wildlife, and natural tranquility. It’s no wonder people come from all over the world to witness the unique splendor of one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world and to take part in the vast offering of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg outdoor activities, too. For the avid cyclist, this means taking on the steep mountain terrain as a worthy challenge and finding a refreshing change of scenery in the shaded forest trails. Put on your helmet, kick back the stand, and embark on some of the best biking trails in the Smokies!
Inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Mountain biking is generally prohibited on the trails of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park due to extremely steep terrain, narrow paths or otherwise heavy traffic. The following trails are the few exceptions.
Cades Cove Loop
Cades Cove is a valley of dense greenery and one of the most popular areas to visit within the national park. This beautiful bit of flatland amid towering mountains on all sides is known for white-tailed deer sightings and a smattering of historic ruins. The loop is 11 miles long and takes, on average, two hours to complete if you do not stop to see the sights. To make the trip shorter, hang a left onto Hyatt Lane or Sparks Lane, both of which cut diametrically across the loop. For more advanced riding, take the extra 7-mile one-way road to Rich Mountain Gap, open from June to October and home to the Rich Mountain Trailhead and Indian Grave Gap Trailhead. Cades Cove Loop is closed to cars Wednesday and Saturday mornings during the on-season, so take advantage of the clear path while you can!
Oconaluftee River Trail
About an hour’s drive from Gatlinburg, the Oconaluftee River splits off the Tuckasegee to meander through Cherokee, NC. First, park at the Oconoluftee Visitor’s Center and learn about what else there is to do in the area, such as the Mountain Farm Museum and Museum of the Cherokee Indian. After all, the Oconoluftee River Trail won’t take an advanced biker very long to conquer. The trailhead starts right outside the visitor’s center and follows the river for 1.5 miles one way for a total of 3 miles. An excellent biking trail for beginners, the Oconoluftee River Trail features beautiful views of the river and mostly flat terrain with a few small hills. Unlike Cades Cove Loop, you won’t have to worry about cars here, but still watch out for pedestrians and dogs.
Take US-441 South for about ten minutes, and you’ll find yourself at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, home to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Library and several trailheads. You’ll find the Gatlinburg Trail on the right after a minute of biking up Park Headquarters Road. This beginner-friendly trail features 1.9 miles one-way of historic homesites and flat terrain with views of the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. At one point, you’ll even cross the river on a scenic footbridge. This trail is also open to pedestrians and pets.
Deep Creek Trail
Deep Creek Trail is the last of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park trails open to cyclists. The closest trailhead is about a half-hour drive from Gatlinburg, right off US-441 Newfound Gap Road. The out-and-back-style trail winds alongside Deep Creek for some peaceful views of the crystalline mountain waters, a few steep hills dotted with backcountry camping sites, and quiet immersion in the depths and colors of the forest. The 4.5-mile journey to the outskirts of Bryson City, NC, is perhaps not the best for beginners but still easy enough even for families with small children.
Outside the National Park
You’re more likely to find good biking trails outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are friendly in general to cyclists. However, if you’re looking to get out of the city and dive deep into nature, the following trails are worth the trek!
Drive east on Highway 321 from Gatlinburg, then take a right onto Greenbrier Road before you would cross the Little Pigeon River. There should be plenty of space to park, between three parking areas and the Rangers Station. Once the road turns to gravel about a mile in, kick off on your bike for a 3.5-mile one-way adventure in dense woodland along Porters Creek and the brief Porters Creek Scenic Loop. If you want a little extra, add the 1.5 miles out and back along Ramsey Prong Road. Along the way, you’ll run into the trailheads for Porters Creek Trail, Ramsey Cascades, Grapeyard Ridge Trail, and Old Settlers Trail. However, keep in mind that these trails do not allow bicycles.
Tsali Recreation Area
You’ll have to drive an hour and a half from Gatlinburg to reach the Tsali Recreation Area on the edge of Fontana Lake in Western North Carolina. However, the drive takes you directly through the scenic Smokies, and it’s worth it for the advanced mountain biker. Open year-round, the Tsali Recreation Area is recognized as one of the top 10 places for biking in the country, consisting of 40 miles of an interconnected trail system centered around four main loops, each rated moderately difficult. You’ll wind along gravel roads, dirt connector trails, and well-worn-in hard-pack singletrack, all while enjoying views of the lake and historic Cherokee forests. Plus, it only costs $2 for all-day access to the tracks. Consult the USDA website to find out which days are reserved for mountain bikers and which are exclusive to horseback riders.
Breathe in the fresh mountain air and take a quick sip of water before you mount your trusty two-wheeled companion. You have all morning to explore miles of woodland trails wandering through old-growth forests, around creeks and along riverbanks, before stumbling upon a scenic overlook. A smear of hazy blue peaks stretches out along the horizon before you, a timeless tableau hailing back to another era, like something straight out of The Last of the Mohicans. Though, instead of traversing the gentle Appalachian valleys on horseback, your mechanical steed carries you effortlessly onto whatever comes next around the bend!